A Northrop Grumman-led team is dashing its plan to propose a modified BAE Systems Hawk trainer for the U.S. Air Force’s T-38 replacement program, opting instead for a clean-sheet design for the $1 billion program.

The shift is more bold than it is surprising. The team is paying for a brand-new prototype despite a slump in defense spending. But it has become increasingly evident that the Hawk is unsuited for the mission due to shortfalls in the fast-jet trainer’s ability to sustain Gs, perform high angle-of-attack maneuvering and execute tight turn rate and radius.

Scaled Composites, wholly owned by Northrop Grumman since its purchase in 2007, formed a small team to build a suitable aircraft from the ground up.

This marks the third U.S. company to propose its own new-build aircraft for a competition that began with three foreign-built, modified off-the-shelf designs: the Hawk, Lockheed Martin/Korea Aerospace Industries T-50 and General Dynamics/Alenia Aermacchi M-346. Boeing planned since entering the competition to offer a new-build design; it is teamed with Saab. Textron Airland is looking at three variants of its company-developed Scorpion demonstrator for the T-X mission, says President Bill Anderson. Boeing declined to comment about progress on its prototype.

The Air Force has been openly pursuing a T-X plan since 2011, but the fiscal 2016 budget proposal sent to Congress Feb. 2 indicates that a request for proposals will finally be released in fiscal 2016. The plan calls for $575 million in fiscal 2016-19, with an estimated total program cost at $1.04 billion and a source selection by the end of fiscal 2017. The winner stands to dominate a global fast-jet trainer market, especially for countries planning to buy the F-35. Nine partners already are teamed to develop the stealthy fighter and another three are foreign military sales customers.

The so-called T-X will eventually be used to train future F-22 and F-35 pilots with advanced skills. Adding to the requirements is an Air Force decision in the fiscal 2016 budget plan to expand T-X to cover a requirement for a new “red air” aggressor “stores aircraft interface” kit to include adding a radar, datalink and hard points for weapons and a jamming pod. The T-X aggressors will replace F-16Cs used in that role now at the Air Warfare Center at Nellis AFB, Nevada. The Hawk would be unable to meet the demands of an aggressor aircraft.

The “red air” T-X is needed to tax the technology and skills of future F-22 and F-35 pilots, says Col. Adrian Spain, commandant of the Air Force Weapons School at Nellis. During live-fly training, the aggressors not only use enemy tactics but the aircraft must also emulate adversary platforms well enough to “fool” the Air Force’s aircraft into “thinking” they are an actual enemy system.

“The potential near-peer threat has improved pretty substantially over the last decade, [and] we want to be able to replicate that threat here so we can train against a threat that is realistic and relevant,” Spain tells Aviation Week. “With an older, fourth-gen system, you can probably trick it into thinking [an aggressor] is something else. But in an F-35 and an F-22, the sensors are advanced enough that they’ll know the difference. So we need to have capability on the range to fly against.”

Budget cuts forced the service to deactivate a squadron of F-15Cs last year, leaving only one F-16C aggressor squadron for advanced tactics and pilot training of U.S. and allied pilots at Nellis’s Air Warfare Center.

The Air Force budget proposes to begin funding for the aggressor modification kit in fiscal 2018; a total of $220.5 million is included through fiscal 2020 for the work.

The challenge is for a T-X aircraft to emulate the fifth-generation aircraft qualities without accruing the high cost of replicating them. “As a team—and I want to stress with you that everything was as a team—we entered the fight with the Hawk and as time went on . . . we just kept an eye on the requirements,” says Marc Lindsley, Northrop Grumman’s T-X program director. “And as we saw the requirements evolve and become more clear, we looked at options. It became more and more clear to us that the Hawk wasn’t the optimum solution in terms of requirements and affordability. . . . So we started studying it.”

Northrop turned to Scaled Composites, renowned for its innovative designs and rapid fabrication cycle time, to build the prototype. The team is preparing to assemble the aircraft at Scaled’s facility in Mojave, California, with an eye toward first flight by year-end. Budget constraints are driving the Air Force and competitors to search for affordable options. Tom Vice, president of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, says this is partly achievable with speed in designing and manufacturing aircraft coupled with innovative designs that take life-cycle cost into account upfront. 

“We have tremendous agility in the marketplace to bring innovation much, much faster,” Vice told reporters during a tour last month to showcase the company’s facilities in California. “We are setting a tone inside the organization and backing it up with investment that allows us to think about innovation for affordability.”

Until now, Northrop has kept its plans for the new aircraft under wraps. The company teamed first as a subcontractor to BAE Systems in 2011; it quietly shifted roles to become the prime last June. The core team will remain intact, Lindsley says. L-3 Communications will continue to handle the ground-based training system. Northrop is “in discussions with BAE Systems to include their training system in our aircraft solution,” says Northrop spokesman Bryce McDevitt. The goal is to port the air vehicle training system from the Hawk to the new design. It would include a reconfigurable cockpit system to allow for various training scenarios as well as software to allow for insertion of various mission scenarios. BAE has declined to comment on its plans and has not explained how its air vehicle system will interface with L-3’s ground-based equipment.

Northrop is taking lessons from Detroit-based Kuka Systems in designing its assembly line. Kuka started teaming with Northrop in 2012 and has experience in low-cost auto manufacturing techniques. A location for the work has not been announced, although if Northrop wins, the program will be based at its Melbourne, Florida, manned aircraft center of excellence.

Lindsley provides scant details of the actual prototype design, including a “no comment” on whether it would require one or two engines, because of the competitive landscape. The company has not offered a name for the prototype.

The Northrop team’s decision to abandon the Hawk leaves a dim future for the program. BAE moved its Hawk work from Brough to Warton, England, in 2011 despite having few orders for the aircraft. Subsequently, however, it won a contract with the Royal Saudi Air Force for 22 aircraft and a deal with Oman for eight. The Hawk design evolved over time since its first flight in 1974. More than 1,000 Hawks have been built. BAE declined to comment about the future of the program.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced in January that T-X will be a pathfinder for her Bending the Cost Curve initiative, which is designed to allow for dialog with industry on requirements and cost trades with a goal of reducing weapon-system cycle time and cost. “When it comes to T-X, we are about two years away from a request for proposals stage, and this new process should allow us to directly engage industry as we develop an understanding of how to best evaluate our objective and our threshold requirements,” James said. Today’s procurement process is linear, with requirements developed by one unit and handed over to another for a development and buy. James hopes that by opening a dialog with industry early in the process, the service can tailor the requirements not only for operational needs but with a realistic budget in mind.

Lindsley and Anderson welcome this approach. Lindsley cautions, however, that the Air Force must provide industry enough time to adjust its designs accordingly when allowing for such trades, especially when the Pentagon is relying more heavily on contractor research and development funding for prototypes and risk reduction. He says thus far there has been a “very healthy dialog” on T-X with the Air Force; Northrop notified the service it was building its own prototype last year.

“The big issue for us is we can debate the requirements, . . . but then we need the time . . . to meet those requirements,” Lindsley says. “Have the dialog, understand those trades, publish the requirements and lock them in, and then we need the time to design, develop and field that solution . . . at our investment.”

This model is a departure for the Pentagon. With three contractors offering company-funded, clean-sheet options for T-X, industry is clearly keen on it. But the Defense Department’s history in this area includes failures. Despite contractor-funded designs for an Army Armed Aerial Scout helicopter, the service ultimately ended a demonstration effort without selecting a design. Likewise, four bidders have heavily invested in risk reduction for a Navy Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike aircraft, and it has been continually delayed, prompting Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin to halt or scale back their work substantially.

The Air Force intends to buy as many as 350 of the trainers as part of a larger T-X system, including advanced training aids such as a sophisticated ground-based training platform and aids.